Putin's Russia: better and worse
The mysterious poisoning of an ex-KGB spy has heightened debate over the nation's direction.
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Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has steadily narrowed the scope for electoral democracy. He has squeezed small political parties out of the process and abolished elections for regional governors. He has created a Kremlin-backed colossus – the United Russia party – that critics say resembles the former Communist Party. An ex-KGB officer himself, Putin staffed government with large numbers of his former colleagues and expanded the powers of the security services.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Kremlin has built a system in which one man, Putin, is responsible for everything," says Yevgenia Albats, an investigative journalist and political scientist at the state-run Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "The KGB is in power in this country, their man is president, and they conduct their affairs as in Soviet times."
A chorus of such criticisms has risen in the wake of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko's fatal poisoning last month by polonium-210, a radioactive substance. While investigators have not uncovered any links to the Kremlin, which denounced Mr. Litvinenko's death-bed claim that Putin was responsible, Britain announced Sunday that nine of its policemen were headed for Russia to follow up on related leads.
But others argue that Putin is steering Russia toward democracy, using the country's own traditions of strong one-man rule. "Democracy isn't a state of things, it's a process of involving the people in political life as bearers of the idea of state- building," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a leading Kremlin adviser. "[In this sense,] Putin has succeeded in bringing more people than ever into the political process.... Russia might not survive if it has to endure any more shocks or revolutions."
Some experts say the second war in Chechnya, which began in 1999, as well as a series of terrorist attacks inside Russia by Chechen rebels, may have driven Putin to adopt strict measures – much as 9/11 challenged the US to tighten national security. Chechnya's uneasy peace is also generating instability and political killings inside Russia, they suggest. "The logic of the war in Chechnya, all these gangs settling scores, has a very bad impact on the situation in Moscow," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Moscow. "There is a spillover effect."
Few dispute that Putin has muzzled Russia's three giant TV networks, which reach all corners of this far-flung country, and compelled news broadcasts to toe the Kremlin line. But at the same time there's been an explosion of entertainment programming, Internet publishing, and satellite TV access. A typical newsstand today offers far fewer independent newspapers or political journals than a decade ago, but has sprouted numerous new consumer publications, from Vogue to Men's Health to Homes & Gardens.
"We have Soviet-style news broadcasts, but the glossy media have taken off," says Sergei Strokan, an editor at Kommersant, one of Moscow's few remaining independent daily newspapers. "Entertainment fills the niche that became vacant when serious information retreated from the mass media," he says.
Another trend that prompts sharp disagreement is "Kremlin capitalism." Russia has been steadily taking back ownership of about 30 percent of oil and gas resources that were formerly held privately – in part by seizing the assets of now-jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky – and there is growing state encroachment into the banking, aviation, telecommunications, and automobile industries. A report released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that the shift away from market reforms under Putin "bodes ill for Russia's growth prospects."
However, Nikolai Liventsev, an expert with the official Institute of International Relations in Moscow, argues that state direction over the economy can be a powerful tool for development. "Many countries have done this before, especially in Asia, and it can help us adjust to the world economy," he says.
The perils of rising bureaucratization, which comes with Kremlin capitalism, worry many. Transparency International, the Berlin-based corruption watchdog, places Russia's corruption level as tied with several nations for 121st place on a list of 163 countries, in company with some of the poorest countries in Africa.
"Business is not secure," says the farmer, Butovsky. "You cannot rely on the police or the courts, and this creates great uncertainty. How can there be an effective economic strategy for the country when there is no working system of law?"
But his wife, Ms. Vallik, counters that leaders may be bad, but people build their own lives. "I think society develops by its own inner laws," she says.